Since I started getting back into video games a few months ago, I’ve been very lucky to have people in my life who will answer my gaming-related questions and generally just make me feel like I’m not an idiot. Between all you lovely commenters here on Autostraddle and people I know outside of the internet, I’ve felt nothing but welcomed and supported. To that end, close friends and coworkers — most of whom are pretty serious gamers — have shared excitement about new releases, recommended games, and listened to me complain about Warren from Life is Strange.
Recently a coworker sent me a video review for a new game called Inside that looks amazing. I was really excited to play it… until I realized that it’s not available for Mac (yet). I was feeling sorry for myself, just shuffling around my apartment listening to “Christmas Time is Here,” but then I noticed that the development company, Playdead, has another game called Limbo. Rejoice!
Gentle spoilers and some graphic images below!
Limbo is really, really great. I like to read about games on Steam before I play them, but the only description for Limbo is: “Uncertain of his sister’s fate, a boy enters LIMBO,” so I wasn’t too sure what I was getting into. They call the main character a boy, but I say fuck that because you only ever see their silhouette and they could just have an adorable queer haircut and who knows even? I decided my li’l cutie was non-binary, but if you want to play as a girl or boy I say go for it.
Anyway, the game begins somewhat abruptly and without any introduction. It fades from black as you wake up on the forest floor, blinking to adjust to your new surroundings. Everything is black and white, and the setting is full of beautiful, artistic depth, with layers of trees and branches and grass in soft focus. The brightest thing on screen is your character’s glowing eyes, which is really unsettling. The soundtrack is moody and atmospheric, relying mostly on sound effects and purposeful silence, and it does well to set an eerie tone.
At its most basic level, Limbo is a 2-D puzzle-based platformer. The controls are simple to use on Mac/PC: arrows to move/jump and alt for action (which is usually pushing/pulling/grabbing something). There aren’t levels, at least not what I consider levels in the traditional sense; you just walk along in this creepy film noir world and figure out how to get past obstacles as you approach them. One thing I love about the structure of the game is that you don’t have to go very far back and replay obstacles when you die. Each obstacle, and sometimes stages that are part of a larger puzzle, triggers a respawn. This is really key, because I died. A lot.
Limbo is violent as hell. It’s violent in a way that is and isn’t extraordinarily graphic— yes, everything is black and white and you’re only seeing the silhouette of blood or dismemberment, but, damn, there is something so disconcerting about watching a cute cartoon get chopped to bits by a buzzsaw. It’s also violent in a way that never stops being shocking, even after I knew a bear trap would decapitate me. If I accidentally grazed the edge of one, I still gasped audibly when it snapped on me. The worst deaths, for me, were any of the ones involving the giant spiders, because I don’t even fuck with regular spiders so giant ones can just go light themselves on fire.
In general, puzzle-based games tend to not be my favorite types. I usually crave a good story. I never got into Candy Crush, but I did download Kwazy Cupcakes (which is essentially the same thing) after I saw Gina and Captain Holt become obsessed with it on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. I played fanatically for a few days, but eventually lost interest and deleted the app from my phone. Limbo is different for a few reasons.
First, there’s more to getting past an obstacle than just solving a puzzle. Even after I realized what my character had to do (whether it was me actually figuring it out or, a few times, watching a clip on YouTube), I still had to actually do the thing. A lot of Limbo’s puzzles rely heavily and timing and finesse. You can have all the elements set up perfectly and still die if you don’t execute properly.
It can be frustrating at times, but it never made me want to stop playing the game. Maybe it’s because I haven’t played many modern platformers and I’m used to jerky graphics, but Limbo just feels really smooth and right. When you swing back and forth on a rope, the momentum carries you exactly the way you would expect it to in real life. When you leave a cart with wheels at the top of a hill, it accelerates just as it should.
Another thing, for me, that elevates Limbo out of the realm of simply a puzzle game is the story. Don’t get me wrong, if you’re expecting a well-defined plot about a set of siblings on a quest to be reunited, you’ll be disappointed. There’s no dialogue, either written or spoken, and you rarely stumble across another human character. The few times you do see other children, they’re at the edges of the screen and you don’t engage with them. They try to stop your progress, but run away when you get past their obstacles.
The game’s resolution is very open to interpretation (more on that later), but I enjoyed the vagueness of what “really happened” to your character and their sister. The goal of finding her, and the added intrigue surrounding the other humans and their place in limbo, was enough to keep me interested throughout my playthrough.
The other reason I was completely captivated by Limbo is that it is fucking gorgeous, but in a really unique way. It’s sort of cartoon-y – but also realistic, and it’s creepy and gory and so, so unnerving. I was on edge the entire time I played. The landscape shifts from the sweeping fields and huge trees of a countryside, to the cold gray urban machinery of a factory (which reminded me a lot of the film Metropolis), to a strange combination of the two where machine guns are triggered by lasers and gravity sometimes flips. The art direction is absolutely spot on throughout it all
Less gentle spoilers for the ending below!
Okay, so, the ending. Let me begin by saying that I was very satisfied with the way Limbo ended. For anyone who hasn’t played and doesn’t care about spoilers: after the very last puzzle, your character is propelled through a glass pane that shatters all around you. It’s in slow motion and it’s all very dramatic. Just like the beginning of the game, you wake up in a field, disoriented and blinking. You walk up a small hill and find your sister doing something in the grass, playing or digging, maybe. She startles at your approach, but doesn’t turn around. And that’s it. Fade to black, roll the credits, game over.
What does it mean? Well, you can find a very solid (and depressing) roundup of theories here, but I’m not sure it matters. Is that kid super dead? Almost definitely. Is their sister also dead? Probably. Are they reuniting and heading out of limbo together or are they doomed to repeat this loop indefinitely? I have no idea. And I love it. I love that playing this game has kept me up at night, internally debating whether a fake child fell out of a treehouse or got into a car accident. I love that I’ve poured over screenshots of flies and read intricate theories and gone back to revisit sections of the game that might have hidden meanings. I loved this experience.